We do not know when he will return, but Christ promised us that he would return in glory. St. Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 24:27) says He will come “as a light comes from the east” to bring God’s plan of redemption to its fulfillment.
In the early Church, Christians expected that Christ would come soon — any day. There was hopeful expectation. They were watchful — they looked to the sky in the east to wait for Christ. Because they did not know when he would return, they proclaimed the Gospel with urgency and enthusiasm, hoping to bring the world to salvation before Christ returned.
It has been nearly two thousand years now since Christ ascended into heaven. It has become easier to forget that he will come again to earth. It has become easier to forget that we must be waiting, we must be watching, and we must be ready.
In the season of Advent, as we recall Christ’s Incarnation at Christmas, we are reminded to be prepared for Christ’s coming. In the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent this year, Christ tells his disciples “to be on the watch.” (Mk 13:34)
“You do not know when the master of the house will come,” (Mk 13:35) Jesus says. “Lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” (Mk 13:36)
We remember that Christ is coming whenever we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In the Holy Mass we are made present to the sacrifice at Calvary, and to the joy of Christ’s glory in heaven.
But we also remember that Christ will return, and we remember to watch, to be vigilant, to wait for him, and to be prepared.
The Mass is rich with symbolism. The vestments of the priest remind us of the dignity of Christ the King. We strike our breasts, bow our heads, and bend our knees to remember our sinfulness, God’s mercy, and his glory. In the Mass, the ways we stand, sit, and kneel remind us of God’s eternal plan for us.
Since ancient times, Christians have faced the east during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to remember to keep watch for Christ. Together, the priest and the people faced the east, waiting and watching for Christ. Even in Churches that did not face the east, the priest and people stood together in the Mass, gazing at Christ on the crucifix, on the altar, and in the tabernacle, to recall the importance of watching for his return. The symbolism of the priest and people facing ad orientem — to the east — is an ancient reminder of the coming of Christ.
More recently, it has become common for the priest and the people to face one another during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The priest stands behind the altar as he consecrates the Most Holy Eucharist, facing the people. The people see the face of the priest as he prays, and he sees their faces. These positions can have important symbolism too. They can remind us that the Blessed Eucharist, at the center of the assembly, should also be at the center of our families and our lives.
But the symbolism of facing together, and awaiting Christ, is also rich, and important. Especially during Advent, as we await the coming of the Lord, facing the east together — even symbolically facing Christ together at the altar and on the crucifix — is a powerful witness to Christ’s imminent return. Today, at a time when it is easy to forget that Christ is coming — and easy to be complacent in our spiritual lives and in the world of evangelization — we need reminders that Christ will come.
In the ad orientem posture at Mass, the priest does not “face away” from the people. He is with them — among them, and leading them — facing Christ, and waiting for his return.
“Be watchful!” says Jesus. “Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” We do not know when the time will come for Christ to return. But we know that we must watch for him. May we “face the east,” together, watching for Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in our lives. Amen.